The two women, dressed in elegant sundresses, sitting at a café in Jaffa on a recent morning, could be any two friends, getting together for brunch.
The only clue that they are two very famous actresses/screenwriters having the biggest week of their professional lives is that one of them wears a black fedora that hides most of her face, as if she isn’t in the mood to be recognized.
Seven Blessings also won an Ophir Award for its screenplay, written by first-time screenwriter Amsallem with Eleanor Sela, her costar in the film and her second cousin, who is sitting next to her sipping ice coffee.
The film, which was produced by Ronen Ben Tal, also won the Best Picture Award, making it Israel’s official selection for consideration for a Best International Feature Oscar, as well as a number of other awards, including prizes for its director, Ayelet Menahemi, and for Tikva Dayan, the actress who plays Amsallem’s mother in the film. Or, rather, one of her mothers.
A unique story of tradition
This detail about the mothers is at the heart of Seven Blessings, a unique story of a tradition in the Moroccan community in which one sister with many children would give away a child, invariably a girl, to her barren sister.
The adoptive mother would raise the girl as her own and often the child knew nothing of her true lineage and got a shock when she was sent back to her biological parents years later.
This story happened to many women of an older generation of Sela and Amsallem’s family, as well as in their husbands’ families and is far more widespread than you might have guessed, given that it has rarely, if ever, been discussed publicly.
They felt it was their mission to tell this story, and once they decided to write a script, they set about interviewing their older relatives about their experiences in Morocco, since the tradition died out once people of this generation moved to Israel and bureaucrats were more on top of who was living where.
“They had never spoken about their experiences in detail. It was important for us to prove to them that we would treat them and their stories with respect,” said Amsallem.
A cathartic experience for many women
For many, speaking about their trauma was a cathartic experience. For one woman, who was the model for Marie, the heroine Amsallem plays in the movie, “It was like she had been waiting for that knock on the door.”
As they sat and spoke to the woman and her husband, “We understood from his responses that he didn’t know about this at all,” said Sela. “I said, ‘You mean, you never heard this before?’ and he said, ‘Not like this.’”
The woman may have mentioned some of the basic facts, but had never opened up about the emotional side of her experiences.
As they worked on the screenplay for about six years, they began to understand the tradition in depth, and they wanted me – and the audiences who see Seven Blessings – to understand that as psychologically inadvisable as this tradition may seem to us today, it was done out of love.
“If a woman was barren, her husband could divorce her,” explained Sela. Divorce was a stigma and divorced women were often ostracized, and seen as no better than prostitutes. “So the sister with lots of children knew she could save her sister from this fate by giving her child away.”
In the reality of Moroccan Jewish life, families with many children were often poor, and giving away a child helped the family financially and made life less hectic. “It was done out of many complex motives,” Sela said.
Amsallem spoke about how they created the character of Marie, who was born in Morocco and was given to a woman she now calls Mama Gracia (Rivka Bahar) when she was two, and then was sent back to her mother, Hana (Dayan), and her family as a teenager when after the family moved to Israel.
Marie has left Israel and gone to France, where she has made a successful career for herself as a bank executive. She comes home to Israel to get married to her French-Jewish fiancé.
But what should be a joyful reunion turns out to be a time of great tension and pain for Marie, as she weighs whether to confront her mother and her aunt.
“Marie has something unresolved in her,” said Amsallem. “She is in pain, which causes her to disconnect from her family. As the years went by, she lost contact with them, just sending postcards on holidays.
“Suddenly she comes home with her French fiancé to marry into his distinguished family, but she skips the henna [a Mizrahi pre-wedding celebration], she skips the Shabbat Hatan [another tradition, where the groom is called to the Torah before the wedding as both families celebrate].
“But her family is not willing to give up on the Seven Blessings.”
Seven Blessings are a series of seven festive meals following the wedding to celebrate the couple, thrown one night after another, given by the family.
“But here is a recipe for problems, because even for a perfect family, having a meal day after day after day, that’s when the demons come out,” said Amsallem.
The cousins noted that this is especially true in families like theirs, where there isn’t tons of room and everyone is on top of one another. They noted that they set the film in the ’90s for several reasons, one of which is that they wanted it to be before the cellphone era, where people can take little breaks and escape into a different world.
“At these Seven Blessings, there is no way to get away from any of it,” Sela said.
Amsallem said it’s a “movie about Marie and an ensemble. Every character in the film goes through something during this week.”
There are also conflicts with the rest of her family, including her siblings, especially her sister, Irit, played by Sela. In the close-knit, even claustrophobic world of a family like this, Irit resented her sister for growing up in a smaller family that had more money.
In a scene that is one of the film’s emotional highlights, the sisters spend the night in a bed together, and in this intimate, pajama-party setting, shared laughs soon turn to bitter recriminations.
“There is a lot of love between them, but also anger, complicated feelings that they don’t fully get themselves,” said Sela.
There have been many emotional screenings of the film, they said, at which women have approached them afterwards, often in tears, saying, “‘You told my story.’”
Their family has been especially proud and supportive. As the film, which was released in Israel on September 7, is shown here and around the world – and especially given the attention it is getting following its Ophir bonanza – Amsallem and Sela expect to hear from more women.
“It turns out this was a custom all over the world” in traditional communities, said Sela, and they are weighing how to connect women who have had this experience. Sela requested I print an email so that anyone who has been through this experience can contact her and she will keep them informed about any online community she sets up.
The email is her personal one – that’s how passionate she is about this cause – and it’s firstname.lastname@example.org “I know people who see this film and have gone through this will want to connect,” said Sela.
Before I left them to finish their brunch, Amsallem and Sela wanted me to understand that they are not judging their families and their culture, but trying to understand them.
“We are proud of our roots and our culture,” Amsallem said. “We wanted to look deeply into it, the good things and the less-good things… We don’t know how it was to walk in the shoes of those people. It’s not that there is no criticism in the movie, there is. But it’s criticism filled with love. And the hope that that love can bring understanding.”